WASHINGTON — With more drivers yakking on their cell phones or texting from behind the wheel, the Obama administration is taking its first hard look at highway hazards with an eye toward potential new restrictions on using mobile devices while driving.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is kicking off a two-day summit today involving researchers, automakers, safety advocates and lawmakers to find ways of preventing distracted driving. LaHood said he plans to make recommendations Thursday on ways federal and state governments, as well as safety groups, can address the distractions, pointing to previous approaches for drunken driving and seat belts.
Ultimately, LaHood said, he wants the summit to set "the stage for finding ways to eliminate texting while driving."
"You see people texting and driving and using cell phones and driving everywhere you go, even in places where it's outlawed like Washington, D.C. We feel a very strong obligation to point to incidents where people have been killed or where serious injury has occurred," LaHood said.
Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have passed laws making texting while driving illegal and seven states and the district have banned driving while talking on a handheld cell phone, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Many safety groups have urged a nationwide ban on texting and on using handheld mobile devices while behind the wheel.
"People who wouldn't get drunk and drive somehow think it's OK to text and drive — which is just as dangerous," said Kristin Backstrom, a senior manager with the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and one of the forum's speakers.
In July, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that when drivers of heavy trucks texted, their collision risk was 23 times greater. Dialing a cell phone and using or reaching for an electronic device increased risk of collision about six times in cars and trucks.
The Virginia Tech researchers found the risks of texting generally applied to all drivers, not just truckers. A separate report by Car and Driver magazine found that texting and driving is more dangerous than drunken driving.
Congress is watching closely. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who will address the summit, and other Democrats introduced legislation in July that would require states to ban texting or e-mailing while operating a moving vehicle or lose 25 percent of their annual federal highway funding. The Obama administration has not taken a position on the bill.
Transportation officials will try to develop a consensus on the roadway hazards and hear warnings from young adults who caused car accidents because they were texting while driving.
Some groups want tough laws on the distractions. The National Safety Council wants a total ban on cell phone use while driving. The Washington-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety has petitioned the government to consider federal rules that restrict talking and texting by drivers of tractor trailers, motorcoach buses and large vans.
Other groups have focused on texting, which has grown from nearly 10 billion messages a month in December 2005 to more than 110 billion in December 2008, according to CTIA — The Wireless Association, the cellular phone industry's trade group.
The Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety officials, recently reversed course and said it would support new laws banning texting behind the wheel. The Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers, which represents 11 automakers, including General Motors, Ford and Toyota, said it supports a ban on texting and phone calls using a handheld device.
CTIA also supports a ban on texting while driving but has argued that education and enforcement are critical to changing driver behavior.